There’s nothing like formulating a blog-post title in the form of a question. Not only does it let you worm out of taking a stand on a complicated issue, but it’s also great for clicks (“Dying for the answer, are you? Read on…”). And it seems it’s not just bloggers who reason this way. A new study in the journal Scientometrics finds that scientific papers whose titles were phrased as questions were more likely to be downloaded. (Hard to resist papers with headings like, “How long is a giant sperm?”) Papers with colons in their titles, by contrast, receive fewer downloads and citations.
On a related note, Goldacre also points to a 1991 study finding that medical research results that get mentioned in the New York Times were far more likely to receive citations by other academics. Is that just because the papers themselves were inherently more important? Not necessarily. The study’s authors managed to conduct a natural experiment: During a strike by Times printers, the journalists were still putting together an “edition of record” every day; it just wasn’t getting distributed to the public. The medical research written about during that three-week span didn’t receive an extra citation boost. The New York Times really can make a scientific study more influential. Academics seem to be swayed by more than just the content of a paper.
Elsewhere in the academic world, Paolo Manasse notes that a link from one of eight major econ bloggers (particularly Paul Krugman or Marginal Revolution) can dramatically boost an economic study’s readership. Might there be a similar blogger boost that, in turn, make those papers more influential in actual economic debates? Unclear, but it’s probably best to state the underlying moral here in terms of a question.